Is Easter really Astarte, a Babylonian goddess (or festival)?

It is terribly easy for the learned and scholarly readers of this blog – and even its author – to forget that most people in this world honestly have no idea about history at all.  To the ordinary man, the present fills almost his entire field of view.  To him history is a kind of cloud, somewhere far away and not at all important, in which float about Greeks and Romans and knights in armour and the like.  But to the educated man the world is like an onion, of successive layers, with the present growing out of the past.

These thoughts, which if I recall correctly are from C.S.Lewis somewhere, were prompted by seeing twitter posts asserting that Easter was Babylonian, or indeed the name of Astarte.  Only those utterly ignorant could suppose this.  But I wondered from where this came.

A little searching brought me to a curious anti-Catholic book by Alexander Hislop named The Two Babylons.  This seems to be the origin of it.

Consider this passage:

Then look at [the festival of] Easter. What means the term Easter itself? It is not a Christian name. It bears its Chaldean origin on its very forehead. Easter is nothing else than Astarte, one of the titles of Beltis, the queen of heaven, whose name, as pronounced by the people of Nineveh, was evidently identical with that now in common use in this country. That name, as found by Layard on the Assyrian monuments, is Ishtar.* The worship of Bel and Astarte was very early introduced into Britain, along with the Druids, “the priests of the groves.” Some have imagined that the Druidical worship was first introduced by the Phenicians …

But the unequivocal traces of that worship are found in regions of the British Islands where the Phenicians never penetrated, and it has everywhere left indelible marks of the strong hold which it must have had on the early British mind. From Bel, the first of May is still called Beltane in the Almanac;+ and we have customs still lingering at this day among us, which prove how exactly the worship of Bel or Moloch (for both titles belonged to the same god) had been observed even in the northern parts of this island.

“The late Lady Baird of Fern Tower, in Perthshire,” says a writer in ‘Notes and Queries,’ thoroughly versed in British Antiquities++ “told me, that every year, at Beltane (or the first of May), a number of men and women assemble at an ancient Druidical circle of stones, on her property near Crieff. They light a fire in the centre, each person puts a bit of oat cake in a shepherd’s bonnet; they all sit down and draw blindfold a piece from the bonnet. One piece has been previously blackened, and whoever gets that piece has to jump through the fire in the centre of the circle, and pay a forfeit. This is, in fact, a part of the ancient worship of Baal, and the person on whom the lot fell was previously burnt as a sacrifice. Now the passing through the fire represents that, and the payment of the forfeit redeems the victim.”

If Baal was thus worshipped in Britain, it will not be difficult to believe that his consort Astarte was also adored by our ancestors; and that from Astarte, whose name in Nineveh was Ishtar, the religious solemnities of April, as now practised, are called by the name of Easter—that month, among our Pagan ancestors, having been called Easter-monath. The festival of which we read in Church history, under the name of Easter, in the third or fourth centuries, was quite a different festival from that now observed in the Romish Church, and at that time was not known by any such name as Easter.* It was called Pasch, or the Passover, and though not of Apostolic institution,+ was very early observed by many professing Christians, in commemoration of the death and resurrection of Christ.

++ The Right Hon. Lord John Scott.
* The name of Easter is peculiar to the British Islands.
+ Socrates, the ancient ecclesiastical historian, after a lengthened account of the different ways in which Easter was observed in different countries in his time, i.e., the fifth century, sums up in these words: “ Thus much already laid down may seem a sufficient treatise, to prove that the celebration of the feast of Easter began everywhere more of custom than by any commandment either of Christ or any Apostle.” (Hist. Ecclesiast, lib. v., cap. 22).

 The author then goes on to discuss the idea of Lent, and to make a series of claims about the origins of this which need not detain us.

The argument above is simple, once we remove the verbiage, and so let’s examine it:

  1. There is a folk custom of celebrating “Beltane”, according to a 19th century almanac.
  2. The name must refer to the Babylonian god Bel or Ba`al.  (Why?)
  3. This is confirmed by a piece of folk-lore where people in Scotland burn something. (If this story is true, why does it relate in any way?)
  4. If Bel was here, then Astarte must be too.  (Why?)
  5. If the pagans of whatever period is mentioned worshipped Bel and Astarte, then Eosturmonath – the name of the spring season, given by Bede and nowhere else – must refer to Astarte.  (Why?)
  6. So the inhabitants of Babylon must pronounce Astarte in the same way as Britons of 19th century England pronounce Easter. (Why?)

Each claim is open to a simple objection – that the claim made is not evidenced, and that there is no special reason to believe it.  Each and every step in this argument is open to the very same objection.  Yet unless all of them are true, the argument collapses.

And the claims are simply ridiculous.

Why should a modern Scottish folk custom relate to Bel of Babylon?  Why should a modern Scottish custom relate to the nomenclature of the Anglo-Saxons a millennium earlier?

Which people precisely are supposed to have adopted Bel – the beaker folk?  The celts?  The Romano-British?  The picts? For there has been much movement of peoples in Britain.

The claim to know how the ancient Babylonians pronounced Astarte … where does Hislop get his information? Time travel?

But it is pointless to go on with beating this drivel to death.  Hislop has no evidence, his argument is just a sequence of claims, none of them at all probable.  It’s drivel and nothing else.

As a final note, let’s return to Hislop’s footnote about Socrates:

Socrates, the ancient ecclesiastical historian, after a lengthened account of the different ways in which Easter was observed in different countries in his time, i.e., the fifth century, sums up in these words: “ Thus much already laid down may seem a sufficient treatise, to prove that the celebration of the feast of Easter began everywhere more of custom than by any commandment either of Christ or any Apostle.” (Hist. Ecclesiast, lib. v., cap. 22)

The HE of Socrates is online, and book 5 chapter 22 is here.  We may note that Hislop’s words are not to be found in it.  In fact Socrates doesn’t discuss that issue, but instead says that the exact date of celebrating Easter, and the fasts connected to it, were not specified by the apostles; not that celebrating it was not specified.


8 thoughts on “Is Easter really Astarte, a Babylonian goddess (or festival)?

  1. This reminds me of what I have seen called ‘Fluellenism’ from the way Shakespeare has Captain Fluellen make his case for the similarities between ‘Alexander the Pig’ and Henry V.

    And of the attractions of folk etymology…

  2. I wanted to note something. As you observe, the quote attributed to Socrates is not found in Socrates’ actual work. For a while I thought that Alexander Hislop goofed up the translation himself, but it seems he was relying on a faulty translation. Namely, a translation from the 16th century by Meredith Hammer found here:

    The link should bring you to the page, but if it doesn’t, it is in the middle of page 354. The quote given in The Two Babylons is there. The printing is from the 17th century, but the opening letter to the king by the author is dated 1584. The above work also has translations of other authors, but Socrates is the one we’re concerned about.

    Discovering this has a major advantage: We now see EXACTLY where in the translation this came from rather than just an ambiguous idea of its section. Thus we can compare it to how the “Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers” series (which Roger links to) renders that same sentence. Meredith Hammer’s translation reads:

    “Thus much already laid down may seem a sufficient Treatise for to prove that the celebration of the feast of Easter began every where more of custom than by commandment, either of Christ or any Apostle.”

    This is almost identical to what we see in The Two Babylons, save for its replacement of “every where” with “everywhere”. In contrast, the much more recent Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers translation, which is probably the standard English translation (mostly due to it being in public domain) says:

    “But the instances we have adduced are sufficient to show that the Easter Festival was from some remote precedent differently celebrated in every particular province.”

    They start out the same, but then deviate midway through the sentence. I did not compare too much of the two translations, but looking at the surrounding sentences, they seem otherwise to have the same meaning in their other sentences; obviously not the same words, but the same meaning. it is only the above sentence that is a marked deviation in meaning.

    So who has it right? Well, let’s look at the Greek. We can find it in Migne’s Patrologia Graeca, volume 67, column 641, to the left of the B that is in the middle of the two columns:

    It reads, absent the accent marks and such that are a pain to transcribe so I won’t include them:
    ικανα μεντοι και τα παρατεθεντα προς αποδειξιν, του την εορτην του Πασχα εκ συνηθειασ τινος κατα χωρας διαφορον εοχηκεναι τιμην.

    Apologizes for omitting the accents, but when manually writing these up it’s extra work to put them in.

    Now, As meager as my Greek is, I can still recognize that the words “Jesus” (Ιησούς) and “apostle” (ἀπόστολος) are nowhere to be found, nor anything resembling them (Greek words can be spelled differently based on grammatical context so the words would not necessarily be in those exact spellings, but they would not be so different as to not be recognizable). However, it DOES have χωρας there, which is a word that means things like place or country, which is found in the Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers translation (“province”), but not the one by Meredith Hammer.. Thus it is clear that the Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers translation is the accurate one.

    This does raise a question, however; why did Meredith Hammer’s translation make this error? Did he simply mess up the translation somehow? Was he working with a faulty manuscript or faulty printing? I have no idea, unfortunately.

    I should note, incidentally, that it seems this translation made its way into pamphlets attacking the practice of Lent. In Peter Gunning (Anglican Bishop) wrote a book called “The Paschal or Lent fast, apostolical and perpetual”. A reprint from 1845 can be found here:

    On that page, he is complaining about anti-Lent pamphlets using inaccurate quotes from Socrates and gives several examples. Here is the pertinent one:

    “A second instance we will give: whereas Socrates had said, ικανα μεντοι και τα παρατεθεντα προς αποδειξιν του την εορτην του Πασχα εκ συνηθειασ. τινος κατα χωρας διαφορον εοχηκεναι τιμην, which in English is this, “the things already laid down are sufficient for to prove that the feast of Easter hath had from custom different honour in several countries,” this they render thus, “thus much already laid down may seem a sufficient treatise for to prove that the celebration of the feast of Easter began every where more of custom, than by commandment either of Christ or any Apostle;” whereas in this their rendering here is again no mention of “honour,” which was according to Socrates in the several countries; and in the words of Socrates there was no mention of the beginning of Easter, much less of its being begun every where more of custom, than of any commandment of Christ or any Apostle; there being nothing in the Greek of “beginning of custom,” nothing of these words “more than by commandment,” nothing of these words “either of Christ or any Apostle.””

    Aside from the punctuation being a little different, we may note that the Greek text he offers is the same as the one I mentioned earlier. And he notes that the “began every where more of custom” is an erroneous translation, and his translation matches up against with the Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers series.

    Thus, unless it can be demonstrated that a manuscript has the wording that is found in The Two Babylons and Meredith Hammer’s translation, and that said manuscript should be given higher preference than the manuscripts used in critical editions, it must be concluded that the translation used in The Two Babylons is an error. Hislop doesn’t bear as much blame for this one as his other errors, as he was relying on someone else’s wrong translation (I am not sure if he consulted Meredith Hammer’s full translation or if he just saw someone else, perhaps one of the pamphlets that Peter Gunning was complaining about, who used it). It would have been proper to verify it, though.

    Still, even if the error was mostly not Alexander Hislop’s fault, the fact is that it is still an error. Unfortunately, I have seen plenty of people repeat this quote (no doubt taking it from The Two Babylons) despite it, as has been discussed, being something that it appears Socrates never actually said. And they have far less of an excuse because it is so much easier to check this citation.

  3. That is rather marvellous! Well done! So the Hammer translation is the source of the Socrates. It would be very interesting indeed to know what he was translating!

    (I prefer the old Google Books, which is here.)

    I looked at his preface and found references to Christophorson and Grynaeus. Looking at the NPNF preface, I find this statement:

    There are two independent editions of Socrates’ Ecclesiastical History, each of which has served as a basis for reprints, secondary editions, and translations. These are:

    I. Eusebii Pamphili: Hist. EccI. LL. X.; ejd. de Vita Constantini LL. V.; Socratis Hist. Eccl. LL. VII.; Theodoreti Episc. Cyrensis Hist. EccI. LL. V.; Collectaneum ex hist. eccl. Theodori Lectoris LL. II.; Hermiæ Sozomeni Hist. EccI. LL. IX.; Evagrii Hist. Eccl. LL. VI. Lut. Paris, ex off. Rob. Stephani 1544 pridie Cal. Jul.

    a. Upon this edition is based a Latin translation by Wolfgang Musculus, Bâle 1544, 1549, 1557, 1594, and one by J. J. Christophorson, bishop of Chichester, Paris 1571, Cologne 1581, Bâle 1570; with notes by Grynæus and by Henricus Petri 1611; incorporated into the Bibliotheca Patrum, ed. Cologne 1618 as Vol. V. and ed. Lyons 1677 as Vol. VII.

    b. The Greek text of Stephens and the Latin translation of Christophorson were published together in Geneva, 1612.

    c. An English translation of Socrates’ Ecclesiastical History was made by Meredith Hanmer,106 and is contained in his Ancient Ecclesiastical Histories of the first six hundred years after Christ, written in the Greek tongue by three learned Historiographers, Eusebius, Socrates and Evagrius. London 1577. [This work also contains Dorotheus’ Lives of the Prophets, Apostles, and Seventy Disciples reprinted in 1585 and 1650.]

    The other edition, of Valesius, is probably the basis for the NPNF edition. I have no time to look now, but possibly the 1612 text was the basis for Hammer’s translation?

  4. First, a quick note: I goofed up and misread the translator’s name as Meredith Hammer; it was actually Meredith Hanmer.

    “The other edition, of Valesius, is probably the basis for the NPNF edition. I have no time to look now, but possibly the 1612 text was the basis for Hammer’s translation?”

    Well, thanks to some of the information you offered I was able to make some further inroads in my research. Now, in regards to your question, it couldn’t have been the 1612 text because Hanmer’s translation was printed in 1577, as your source mentions (heck,,_1885-1900/Hanmer,_Meredith tells me he died in 1604). Unless the NPNF preface omitted an edition or printing, it looks like the only printing of the Greek text at that point would have been from 1544.

    I was, however, able to find that 1544 printing! (“ex off. Rob. Stephani 1544”) Here it is:

    This link should take you directly to the applicable page, but for the record page 250 is on the page itself, but it’s page 515 overall.

    It took me a while to find the phrase, both because of my lack of Greek knowledge (I know the alphabet but not that much else), but it’s made worse because of the printing; there’s a number of abbreviations, and some of the letters are written in a different way than they would normally nowadays; for example, the “Πασχα” was very hard to identify because it basically combined the σ and the χ into one symbol. If it helps anyone out in finding it, the phrase (“ικανα μεντοι και τα παρατεθεντα προς αποδειξιν, του την εορτην του Πασχα εκ συνηθειασ τινος κατα χωρας διαφορον εοχηκεναι τιμην.”) begins on the seventh line from the bottom (the seventh line from the bottom begins with the first word, ικανα) and then the applicable sentence continues on until the middle of the fifth line from the bottom. The combination of the different font style and the abbreviations makes it hard for someone like me to make things out, but I can still make things out well enough to recognize that the phrase seems to be there.

    So it looks like yes, this version of the Greek text also correlates with the NPNF. If you know Greek or know someone who knows Greek better than me, you or they could take a look to be sure, though.

    I also did look at a Latin translation that was mentioned in your source (this is a little redundant now–I found the Greek after the Latin–but the information may still be useful). I wasn’t able to find the Wolfgang Musculus one, but did get the one by Christophorson. One can find Christophorson’s translation here, which was harder to find because the author is listed by Google Books as Christopherson:

    We find the applicable portion on page 445. Incidentally, I should note something I didn’t before: In both this and Meredith Hanmer’s translation, the chapter numbers are a little different; whereas Migne and the NPNF put this in chapter 22, Christophorson and Hanmer have it be in chapter 21. It appears that their translations take what NPNF/Migne have as chapters 20 and 21, and then combine them into just one chapter, causing the subsequent chapters to be differently numbered.

    But as to the all-important sentence, we see:

    “Satis quidem multi sunt hi quos citauimus, ad declarandum, festum Paschatis ex consuetudine quadam in singulis locis varie celebratum esse.”

    I may only be midway through the Cambridge Latin Course, but I can still figure out that this is much more of a match for the P&NPF translation rather than the one by Meredith Hanmer.

    Based on this and especially the information about the Greek, unless there is a subsequent printing of the 1544 edition that has the error that isn’t mentioned by the NPNF, then it seems the source of the issue would most likely be that Meredith Hanmer simply translated this sentence poorly.

  5. That’s very good work. Thank you for chasing those up. Early translators are generally said to be rather casual, but it’s great to see this bottomed out!

  6. So, a bit of an extra note. I know I’ve been writing a lot, but I just keep stumbling upon new information.

    For reasons given, it’s clearly that the rendering in The Two Babylons dates back to Hanmer’s translation, as it’s a nearly perfect match, with the only change being one different spelling. However, there is an interesting thing to note. as I mentioned, Hanmer’s translation combines Chapters 20 and 21 into just one chapter, so what in the NPNF has as Chapter 22, it has under Chapter 21. But The Two Babylons cites Chapter 22. So if the quote comes from Hanmer’s translation, why does it cite chapter 22 instead of 21?

    So I took another look at it. The Two Babylons cites Socrates’ Ecclesiastical History in two places, both when discussing Easter. The first is the one you quote, citing “(Hist. Ecclesiast, lib. v., cap. 22)”. However, several pages later, he cites it again, with the quote “Those who inhabit the princely city of Rome fast together before Easter three weeks, excepting the Saturday and Lord’s-day.” This one is cited to “Socrates, Hist. Eccles., lib. v. cap. 22, p. 234.” We note here that unlike the first quote, here a page number is offered.

    Now, we find something interesting here. This phrase we see isn’t how Hanmer translated it. He rendered that phrase thusly:
    “Such as inhabit the Princely City of Rome, do fast three weeks together before Easter, excepting the Saturday and Sunday.”

    It can be seen here:

    That means that this quote isn’t coming from Hanmer. And trying to do a search for the rendering used in The Two Babylons on Google Books turns up no matches other than The Two Babylons or people quoting The Two Babylons. So this one appears to be an independent translation that Alexander Hislop made.

    Now, The Two Babylons did say this was page 234. Now, if we turn to his bibliography at the start of the book–while there are many things to criticize Alexander Hislop for, I can commend him for at least providing some clarity as to which editions he was citing–he cites for “Socrates Ecclesiasticus” the 1686 printing from Paris. And we can discover that here:

    This one offers Greek and Latin text. Now, the page 234 citation applies to the quote about fasting for three weeks. But in regards to the quote we’ve been spending this time talking about, it’s on page 236 in the middle of the page. There, the Latin reads:

    “Verum ea quae attulimus, abunde convincunt, festum Paschae diem per singulas regiones vario modo esse celebratum.”

    This is a different translation than the one I cited previously, but again it is the rendering that says it was celebrated differently in different areas, not the one offered in The Two Babylons or Hanmer’s translation. And if you look at the Greek–still in an irritating-to-read font, I’m glad they eventually made the fonts easier to read and engaged in less shorthand–you can see that it’s the same thing we’ve been noting before, “ικανα μεντοι και τα παρατεθεντα προς αποδειξιν, του την εορτην του Πασχα εκ συνηθειασ τινος κατα χωρας διαφορον εοχηκεναι τιμην”, which refers to it being celebrated differently in different areas.

    So, with the quote we’ve been focusing on, The Two Babylons cites chapter 22 of Socrates’ work without any page number, and the rendering is clearly from Hanmer’s translation. But with the other quote in The Two Babylons, it gives a page number and a translation that is apparently independent (it’s possible, though, that this quote was from a source either not on Google Books or that didn’t show up in a search due to an error in digitized text).

    So what it seems has happened here is that for the three weeks quote, Alexander Hislop did look at the 1686 Paris printing and translated from it. However, he did NOT use that as a base for his translation of the other quote, and instead used Hanmer’s translation. And he almost certainly did so indirectly, because as noted, Hanmer had it be Chapter 21, but The Two Babylons cites chapter 22.

    Earlier I noted how Peter Gunning, in his book on Easter, complained about people offering the mistranslation from Socrates in pamphlets. But I notice that Gunning refers to chapter 22 in it, and makes no mention that the pamphlet(s) he is referring to gave the wrong chapter. That indicates they cited chapter 22.

    So while not certain, this is what seems to be the most plausible explanation:

    Meredith Hanmer wrote his translation in which he somehow turned “the Easter Festival was from some remote precedent differently celebrated in every particular province” into “the celebration of the feast of Easter began every where more of custom than by commandment, either of Christ or any Apostle.” At some point later, someone writing anti-Easter/anti-Lent tracts took this translation, but did change the citation from chapter 21 to chapter 22. One of these, or perhaps something quoting from it, made its way into the hands of Alexander Hislop who made use of it in his work. Because it was a secondhand quote, though, he didn’t offer a page number for it.

    At the same time as he did this, however, Alexander Hislop DID read Socrates’ actual work and gave a legitimate quotation from it (the three weeks one); since he was looking at the work for this one, he was able to cite a page number. Bizarrely, despite the fact he apparently had Socrates’ work available given the fact he made use of it, he did not verify the translation of the previous quote.

    If all this is the case, I must retract my previous statement of “the error was mostly not Alexander Hislop’s fault.” Because if the above is correct, then it meant he had the capability of verifying the quote–as he had consulted the work, and indeed the very chapter of the work it was from–but failed to do so, instead giving this inaccurate quote. Thus Hislop would in fact to blame for this error, as he could have easily avoided it.

    Thanks for your help! I know I did most of the research, but the information you provided gave me the necessary extra information to look up all of this other information. If I ever get around to actually finishing a critique I’ve been putting together of the Easter section of The Two Babylons, I’ll be able to make some use of this information in it.

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